|Stuff We Don’t Want|
The culture of donating SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want) to the developing world, particularly Africa, is ill-conceived and highly questionable, says Tukeni Obasi
On April 5 2011, when TOMS Shoes launched its annual “A Day Without Shoes” Campaign, it opened up a whole Pandora’s Box that had only been sealed shut a few weeks earlier about demeaning, feel-good humanitarian programmes that do not thoughtfully and efficiently address real development problems.
In fact, this opposition had started brewing in the days leading up to the “Day without Shoes” as Saundra A of Good Intentions Are Not Enough launched a counter-campaign - “A day Without Dignity”- to denounce the TOMS movement, and calling for Africans, experts and bloggers to make their voices heard.
As over fifty critics and bloggers denounced this movement for its back-door approach to development issues, they also recalled Jason Sadler’s One Million Shirts to Africa campaign as well as World Vision’s 10,000 shirts campaign of weeks and months past.
A Desire to Give or a Need for Space?
What do these three projects have in common that makes them so controversial? TOMS shoes was encouraging North Americans to walk barefooted for a day to raise awareness about poor, shoeless people in developing countries. World Vision had organised campaigns to send fake shoes to Africa - so they don’t go to waste - and NFL Superbowl T-shirts to “communities in need”. And in 2010, when Jason Sadler, creator of the IWearYourShirt.com website, launched his “One Million Shirts to Africa Campaign”, he seemed to have set out to address a real need: the clothing deficit among the poor in Africa.
To deconstruct the philosophy of these projects and the evolution of their objectives, a micro-analysis is necessary. Jason Sadler’s campaign video provides us with a very personal perspective. Jason Sadler had made $83,000 in 2009 advertising shirts for various companies. With a successful career and 365 new shirts, Jason realized that “[he] really [didn’t] need any of [his] old T-shirts” even though he had a wardrobe full of them. This, coupled with his passion for social media advertising, led him to initiate the One Million T-shirt campaign, calling for people to send their old T-shirts which will then be shipped to Africa because “different countries, different villages, different towns, they all need shirts; some people only have half a shirt to their name and some children don’t have a shirt at all.”
....demeaning feel-good humanitarian programs that do not thoughtfully and efficiently address real development problems.
This narrative reveals conventional media stereotypes, long-propagated and constantly reproduced, of naked/poorly-clothed Africans, and of Africa as one vast geographic space that houses all the naked people of the world. But more importantly, it reveals the origin of the problem Jason Sadler is trying to address. In fact, the video situates us at the birthplace of the need - Jason’s wardrobe.
It becomes clear that it wasn’t primarily a need for shirts in Africa, but a need for space in his own wardrobe and a lack of need for his old shirts. The trajectory shows a media entrepreneur who becomes successful, finds himself suddenly laden with more shirts than he bargained for, and then comes up with a supposedly clever, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too way to remedy the situation.
Africa: A Vacuum for Do-gooders
So while Africans are pointing out that Sadler’s Africa doesn’t have an upper class with more clothes than the average American, doesn’t have a third of the world’s natural resources, doesn’t have a textile market where clothes made by Africans are bought and sold; and that his Africa is a shirtless vacuum waiting for over-achieved Americans with a wardrobe of shirts they don’t need to fill it up, they miss the trajectory and the blueprint that has become a framework for aid agencies and companies like TOMS.
At the core of this campaign is a culture of donating SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want) to the developing world, particularly Africa. And the real direction and ownership of this “need” becomes questionable. For the “need” doesn’t start from the voices of people in a local community. It starts from a surplus of SWEDOW and an ill-conceived “constructive” approach to dispose of them, an approach which puts its author in the spotlight, presenting him/her/it as a do-gooder, encouraging fellow dumpers not to think constructively about poverty, inequality or over-consumption, and presenting the shipping of Gifts-in-Kind (GIK) as the magic wand which will solve the developing world’s problems. In TOMS’ case, it starts from a shoe company trying to boost its image and sales by making consumers feel like they are saving the world.
Stifling Local Enterprise
The economic ramifications are also questionable: what does the shipment of one million “free” shirts do to both the developed (donor) and developing (recipient) economies? By creating an outlet for SWEDOW, it sustains over-consumption in developed societies, benefiting their textile manufacturers. At the same time, it stifles demand for local textiles and depresses the prices of locally-produced goods in the receiving economies and communities, whose interests are supposedly paramount.
A repeated pattern hinders the ability of Africans to innovate and to sustain their own development initiatives. Rather, the community becomes a dumping ground for used T-shirts and other sometimes useless commodities, all in the name of charity. Not to mention the costs of packaging and distributing these shirts to the “communities in need”, when that money could have been put to better use in those communities. Furthermore, the message this kind of aid ultimately conveys is: you deserve nothing more than our used shirts/handouts.
In most “donate gifts to Africa” campaigns, one can almost perceive the dilemma of the actor-activist: “(I want to feel like) I’m doing something good and rally people around my cause” versus “Something good is being done even though I am not the central actor”. It gets one wondering: is this really about economic and human development, or more about the actor’s image and cause? Even where these campaigns are well-intentioned, it has become obvious that policies matter; that good intentions may not be enough and sometimes actually do more harm than good.
The Need to Listen Better
So what should Jason have done? First, he should have listened to the people on the ground in Africa. He should have listened to the opinions of young people, women, leaders in Africa, the real people whose livelihoods he wanted to improve, in order to understand their long term needs and respond in a more realistic and sustainable way. Aid activists and NGOS need to start listening – and to listen better.
If he had listened, Jason as a social media person, could also have used his platform to aid the poor in Africa in a more constructive and enduring way. For example, he could feature local African entrepreneurs and local shirt makers, and that way encourage people to “buy African” and invest in African economies. Several for-profit companies have already adopted this approach and are promoting local entrepreneurship and business initiatives in various communities in Africa.
Where does that leave us Africans and Diasporans? While calling these demeaning and unintelligent projects out, we must continue to probe ourselves and make sure we are not ‘slacktivists’. If World Vision and TOMS and Sadler are giving us things we don’t want, the questions we must ask ourselves are: What then do we want? What exactly do we need? And how can these needs be effectively addressed? How do we grow our own economies in ways other than by accepting used clothes and shoes?
We must continue to engage in intellectual discussions about and share knowledge and best practices that will make our societies progress. We must invest in our own economies and our own industries. We must play a vital role in Africa’s progress, changing the SWEDOW narrative to an Africa-by-Africans narrative. For in the final analysis, improvements in quality of life in Africa will come not through international charity, but by African agency –by local initiatives in invention, production and human development.
Tukeni Obasi is a 20-year-old Nigerian political science student at McGill University where she is actively involved in the promotion of the African Studies Program. She has worked with the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights in Senegal and with several grassroots organisations in the Gambia. Tukeni is passionate about education and youth activism and is a member of the World Youth Alliance. She recently co-founded the Youth Consortium for Progress, a youth group committed to youth capacity building through education, entrepreneurship and activism.